Mental coaching in hockey (1): individual aspects

This article is the first part about some mental aspects in hockey. An other article is coming soon and will focus on the collective dimension in hockey. It is written by Manuel Dupuis, sport psychologist and mental coach from 2003.

Mental training in hockey : individual aspects

I will first mention some examples of mental abilities and situations that I frequently come across in my practice with players, and also some examples of mental techniques as can be used by them. These individual elements are closely related to the collective aspects (see below the paragraph on collective aspects). I do not intend to be exhaustive and shall only refer to a few frequent requests and to typical situations.

Concentration / mental zapping

Concentration, which implies continuous attention throughout the match as well as during the training sessions, is frequently the subject of coaching with the players. Hockey games are very intense, there is little time out and everything goes very fast. It is important to remain focused at every moment, and to keep calm in moments of frustration (e.g. when a goal is conceded, when one meets with unfair treatment or any other kind of frustration). In this type of situation, some players have developed skills in order to keep quiet and to focus on the next part of the game, while others remain awhile in thoughts that divert their attention from present reality. For this they may have to pay dearly.
Therefore, players should practise a ritual that enables them to calm down (if necessary) and then concentrate again. A loss of concentration may cause a deficiency of combativeness; in this case, it is important to reactivate it.

Mental zapping techniques can be proposed and trained which help players passing to an emotionally "neutral" state of mind (calmness) or a "positive" one (concentrating or, depending on the needs of the player, combativeness or confidence). The term "zapping" refers in this respect to the act of switching over to other television stations when you do not appreciate what you are watching.

Here are 3 steps in achieving mental zapping after an unmindful moment:

  1. Becoming aware that we lack concentration. This is very important because some players do not realize until late that they are out of the game (for example when they are busy fuming, or when they are still thinking of the previous game period).
    Achieving this is not easy. Some players know what to do (they know about the technique), but they work during the game so fully in automatic mode that they momentarily do not become aware of their condition. It is important that some training exercises used in mental preparation can be put into practice, namely methods for focusing the attention, and creating full awareness. Some sophrology exercises can be helpful.

  2. Returning to an emotionally more neutral state, for example by means of breathing, or thanks to a ritual or a resourceful image.

  3. Getting concentrated again and starting action towards resumption of the game by using a personal releaser : a word or a phrase that one repeatedly pronounces, or a significant gesture (ex: tightening the stick). As will be explained below, this third step is often the simplest, the most complicated being step number 1.

Resource anchoring is in these matters an interesting device to activate not only concentration, but also other mental states, such as self-confidence or fighting spirit. The principle here is to create an association in the memory between a releaser and the occurring of a certain state of mind.

Stress and pressure management / optimal performance

The stress preceding the game, or that of important game moments, are of course subjects that are regularly tackled by players. However, it seems to me that it is generally quite well managed in hockey competition, compared to other sports such as football where the pressure may be higher for a series of reasons that we cannot discuss here.
Stress is normal before the game or at another important moment : it prepares the body for action and should be accompanied by positive thoughts (example: "my stress will serve me on the field"). It is therefore important to develop a personal way of self-talking, consisting of words or phrases that can motivate us.

It is worth noting that the stress should not be too high. There is a zone of optimal performance called "flow", which implies a level of activation that is appropriate to the player personally, and which is associated with a high level of confidence and concentration.

In hockey, stress is also generated by the want of results as claimed by the entourage (parents, the staff of the club, ...), and also by the desire to succeed at a high level. Young players of the national teams are not yet fully armed in terms of mental abilities and are less resistant to pressure and great expectations. Different techniques, such as relaxation, meditation or sophrology are quite appreciated and effective in this context. However, more elaborate individual work is sometimes necessary.
Article about stress management

Self-confidence and positive attitude
Daring to take initiatives and also some risks is definitely pointed out by practically all the players I work with as an important condition for performance. Being confident of success is usually good when rationally thought over : players know what they are capable of and as far as they can decide for themselves, they are able to perform. However, when the match has begun, some automatisms are at work and striking differences appear between individuals. While in the past, the best minds constituted a privileged group, nowadays a certain number of techniques, such as mental imagery, have been worked out in order to help modifying behavior so as to offer interesting possibilities of progressing to other players who show high potentialities but who are subject to inhibitions during competition.

The positive attitude, especially from a physical point of view, but also as far as the behaviors that can be adopted are concerned, is also the subject of much training by resorting to behavioral techniques or to visualization. This training promotes self-confidence and the aptitude for taking initiatives in the field.

The positive attitude also plays a part in the communication between the players and the staff, especially on the field and at important moments.

Match start and entrance on the field

These moments are the subject of special training as they are essential for the readiness with which the players get involved in the match, both physically and mentally. The purpose of this training is to regulate the level of physiological activation and the use of rituals or of a brief and appropriate mental imagery.

Physical and mental recovery

It is important that players can raise to a maximum their physical and mental recovery time. A sufficient number of hours of sleep and a good feeding are essential. The role of the mental trainer here is to make players aware of certain shortcomings in this respect and to help them making up their mind to change this.
The time spent on social networks and online games is often a source of problems for young people. Trying to observe the rest time requires changes in lifestyle.

A second article is coming soon: “Mental preparation for hockey: some collective aspects”

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